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A SHORT HISTORY OF PUERTO RICAN PAINTERS

Francisco Oller's El velorio / The Wake , 1893 (FIG. 1), Rafael Tufi?o's Goyita , 1953 (FIG. 2), and Arnaldo Roche-Rabell's Estoy presente/I am Present , 1991 (FIG. 3). Although all noteworthy Puerto Rican paintings, not much is known about these great artists and extraordinary works. In this short article I will attempt to tell the story of Puerto Rican painting from the 18 th century colonial work of Jose Campeche to the artistic labor of artists born in the United States . Although not all artists will be mentioned (entire books are written on this subject!) it is my hope that some light would be shed on the wonderful paintings that are part of our Puerto Rican cultural heritage.

Born in San Juan on December 23, 1751 to Tom?s Campeche , a former slave, and Mar?a Jord?n , a woman of white origins from the Canary Islands , Jose Campeche, was the first local painter to emerge from the artisan tradition. In his work we see hints of an emerging Puerto Rican identity as the Creole elite begin to feel more fondness for the island of their birth, than to Spain , the land of their parents.

Campeche 's work, a fascinating hybrid of the religious and the secular, serves as a chronicle of the changing face of Puerto Rico in the 18 th century. He painted the most famous ecclesiastic, political and military figures of the day. Gobernador Ustariz , 1792 (FIG. 4), a portrait of the island governor (he governed the island from 1789 to 1792), is one of Campeche 's well-known paintings. The lovely perspective view of San Juan 's Fortaleza Street and the architectural plans of the city's public buildings, which Ustariz is holding, make this an affectionate tribute to Campeche 's native city.

Francisco Oller is considered one of the most important Puerto Rican painters of the 19 th century. Unlike Jose Campeche's works, which were mostly composed of religious themes and portraits of the upper class, Oller's paintings offer a window into Puerto Rican life including lush landscapes, ripe tropical fruits, and everyday folk customs.

Francisco Manuel Oller y Cestero was born on June 17, 1833 in Old San Juan. His parents, Juan Oller y Fromesta and Mar?a del Carmen Cestero y D?vila, were descendants of Puerto Rico's Creole elite which allowed the young Francisco to enjoy the best that Puerto Rican society had to offer. Oller embarked on trips to Spain and later, Paris, where he met artists such as Thomas Courbet, August Renoir, Claude Monet, and Camille Pisarro. These well-known masters influenced Oller's realist/impressionist techniques. His famous masterpiece, El velorio , 1893, called upon all of his organizational skills and artistic craftsmanship allowing him to impressively combine his knowledge of portraiture, landscape, and still life in this work. .

Early 20 th century Puerto Rican art (1900 and 1940) is characterized by the continuation of realist depictions of regional traditions, local people, and island landscapes. In these four decades, the country was still adapting itself to the 1898 abrupt transition from Spanish to North American direction. While certain cultural and political changes clashed with practices initiated since the Spanish conquest, many saw the new regime as an emancipatory agent that would liberate the island from the injustices of the Spanish court. However, when the United States began imposing pro-American cultural changes, artists took the opportunity to staunchly defend Puerto Rican national identity through their work. The painting by Ram?n Frade titled El pan nuestro/Our Daily Bread , 1905 (FIG. 5) has become an iconic image of rural Puerto Rican life. Other works by Miguel Pou ( La Promesa , 1928- FIG. 6), Oscar Col?n Delgado ( La canasta vac?a/The Empty Basket , 1931), and Juan Rosado ( Luquillo entre nubes/Luquillo within the Clouds , 1930- FIG. 7), all attest to the unity in purpose of Puerto Rican artists at this time. Luisina Ordo?ez and Luisa Geigel are also important female Puerto Rican artists, working in the early 1900s, which deserve notable mention.

Although the generation of 1950 loudly proclaimed its preference for graphics, painting was of no less importance during this decade. Through Operation Bootstrap ** the government established a program of mural commissions for Puerto Rican artists, entrusting to them the decoration of new government buildings and factories being established. Many new cultural institutions were also formed at this time providing exhibition programs and space, opportunities for work, and training for painters and graphic artists. Among the most important of these were The University of Puerto Rico Museum, created in 1952; the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, established in 1955; and in 1959, the Ponce Museum of Art, which began as a private collection of 13th to 19th century European art, opened its doors.

Painters of this generation followed the same course established by Oller, Frade, Pou, and Rosado, to the extent that they focused on urban and rural landscapes, and popular scenes. Yet their paintings differed in their conscious critical approach to subject matter, and in the incorporation of pictorial influences derived from contemporary social realist tendencies of the United States and Mexico . Painters that stand out in the period are Rafael Tufi?o, Lorenzo Homar, Jos? A. Torres Martin?, and Eduardo Vera Cortes.

Homar's Le-lo-lai , 1952-53 (FIG. 8) and Tufi?o's Goyita , 1953 exemplify the new trend toward an art of national content and social protest . Goyita , a portrait of Tufi?o's mother, Gregoria Figueroa, (1898-1959), a tobacco worker, represents the face of a working woman with an anguished expression of longing. Goyita has become a national icon representing resilient beauty, female strength and black dignity.

At first glance, Homar's Le-lo-lai might seem to be a festive work representing the Puerto Rican tradition of the Three Wise Men. However, a closer look at the emaciated arms of these masked children and their downcast faces reveal the poverty that exists in the urban slums, a side effect of the urbanization project brought on by the United States occupation. A depiction of La Perla, a San Juan neighborhood infamous for its violence and poverty, stands in the background, a further reminder of the deteriorating conditions of low income housing areas in Puerto Rico .

Artist representations of urban dwellings continue in the work of Felix Rodr?guez B?ez ( Escena de la perla/Perla Scene , 1955), Jos? A. Torres Martin? ( Piojos/Fleas , 1953 ? FIG. 9), and Eduardo Vera Cortes ( Ni?a en la hamaca/Girl on the Hammock , 1954). Although the majority of the works mentioned are figurative, there were a number of artists such as Carlos Raquel Rivera, Julio Rosado del Valle, and Augusto Mar?n who experimented with avant-guard movements like abstract expressionism, cubism, and surrealism, to portray their version of Puerto Rican identity.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s are characterized by a gradual shift away from the more regionalist outlook of the 40s and 50s toward the exploration of more expressive and subjective approaches to realism and figuration. Although there are many, two artists that stand out during this period are Francisco Rod?n and Myrna B?ez.

Francisco Rod?n studied in Paris , Madrid , Mexico , and New York . Wild Mushrooms , 1967 is representative of his early still lives, characterized by luminous areas of color surrounded by thick, black lines. In this, and other of his early paintings, he forces the viewer's attention upon an apparently random or insignificant arrangement of objects, an excuse to delve into the pictorial and expressive qualities of the composition. In the 70s, Rodon painted spectacular psychological portraits such as Luis Mu?oz Mar?n , 1975 (FIG. 10).

The work of Myrna Baez during the 60s shows her interest in expressive realism to explore the interpersonal relations of people in modern, industrialized Puerto Rico . A work such as In the Bar , 1967 (FIG. 11) is extremely effective in communicating the anxiety and alienation of the figures through the way in which the composition appears cut off and the figures compressed in its interior. She depicts the same isolation in the 1976 work, Noviembre where a man, depicted reading a newspaper in front of a fence, is alone, unaware of anyone else.

The period of the 1980s, through the present, is witness to the high standard of development Puerto Rican painting has attained both on the island and in the United States . Four coexistent generations of painters who have been actively producing reveal a tradition firmly grounded in its past, while committed to defining its future. Domingo Garc?a, Lorenzo Homar, Rafael Tufi?o, Myrna B?ez, and Francisco Rod?n, among others, are all artists who have painted for decades on the island. Other artists such as Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, Juan S?nchez, and Jos? Morales call the United States their home. The difference and similarities in the pictorial production of island and mainland artists illustrate the richness and vitality of Puerto Rican painting in the 80s that continues through the 90s, until today.

The work of younger artists producing in the 80s and 90s demonstrates an awareness of outside trends resulting in increased experimentation in the painting medium. A concern for contemporary issues surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, violence, and spirituality also permeates their painting. Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, working during this time, is as much interested in the process of art as the final result. Roche-Rabell was born in 1955 in San Juan , Puerto Rico and studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. While there, he experimented with making physical rubbings of figures and objects on canvas, a technique that he uses to imprint the physicality of the things that are portrayed in his paintings. In Estoy presente/I am Present , 1991 and You Know I am Aware , 1991, one can see the richly textured surfaces and employment of large sweeping brush strokes. According to Susana Leval, Puerto Rican art historian, ?these works also allude to the constant physical transitions bicultural artists must make.?

The concept of biculturalism, prevalent in 80s and 90s work, was validated by the general state of pluralism that characterized the international art world at this time. The work of Juan S?nchez, a Puerto Rican artists born in Brooklyn in 1954, also augments his painting technique with other elements while still speaking about the struggle of Puerto Ricans living in the United States . Mixed Statement , 1984 (FIG. 12) is a triptych about political prisoners, martyrdom, and the violence suffered in the United States by Puerto Rican nationalists. S?nchez incorporates words, photos, and cut newspaper to recall proud and, in this case, rebellious moments from the distant and recent past of the island. This work commemorates two ?independentista? youths who were assassinated.

The female figure is the protagonist in the works of Marta Perez and Mari Mater O'Neill reflecting a feminist sensibility. Exuberant colors and mythical feminine figures are elements of Marta Perez' painting as seen in Maqueta para el aeropuerto de Utuado , 1988 (FIG. 13). O'Neill's work is centered on self-portraiture and landscapes which she develops through forceful and irreverent images that illustrate her own interest in color. Fin de juego/End of Game , is a set of lithographs and oils in comic-strip style that depict San Juan as a metropolis in chaos, futuristic and sterile. She made her protagonist a woman and the works sold out.

Universal themes like violence and spirituality characterize the work of Jos? Morales and Diogenes Ballester. Morales' Santa Barbara en el Barrio , 1993 (FIG. 14) is a vision of passage. On the right panel is a man apparently shot to death, and on the left panel is Santa Barbara waiting to help him on his voyage into the after-life. For Diogenes Ballester, born in 1956 in Playa de Ponce, the spiritual process of painting is an integral part of his experience and work as an artist. According to the artist, the narrative abstraction of figures, symbols and forms that manifest themselves in his work tell of the Afro-Caribbean spiritual knowing that has supported and nurtured the Puerto Rican people. The White Table , 1993 is an example of such a work.

There are also artists (mostly those living in the United States ) who pay tribute to autochthonous Puerto Rican culture. Representations of the j?baro/j?bara, bomba and plena dancers, and pristine landscapes, are seen in the work of Oscar Ort?z ( J?baro encendi'o/Fired-up J?baro , 2004- FIG. 15) Elizabeth B?ez
( J?bara pastelera , 2003), and Obed G?mez ( Rumbero , 2001) as empowering reminders of where we came from.

The Puerto Rican painters mentioned here are a small selection of the vast majority of artists making a difference in the art world. It is my hope that this brief essay adds to your knowledge of Boricua art, sparking your curiosity to continue on your quest for cultural enrichment through Puerto Rican painting.

**A government-sponsored program that gave tax breaks to foreign companies doing business in Puerto Rico .

Nellie Escalante-Dumberger

Written by: Nellie Escalante-Dumberger
Puerto Rican/Latino arts educator and writer

Nellie was a Museum Educator at the American Museum of the Moving Image and teaches a Puerto Rican art course at CUNY on the Concourse (a branch of Lehman college) in the Bronx. She is also the Arte Boricua editor for EL BORICUA, a cultural publication (www.elboricua.com) where she writes a monthly column about Puerto Rican historical and contemporary art.

Voted latina of the year by El Diario La Prensa:
Bio on: El Boricua.com

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